We all have an aesthetic sense. We can identify which paintings are beautiful, and which paintings are not. We can also tell good music apart from bad music. But what about math? Can an abstract idea be considered beautiful? According to a study in Cognition, the answer is yes, and you don’t need to be a mathematician to judge the beauty of an idea.
Coauthored by a Yale mathematician and a University of Bath psychologist, the study shows that average Americans can assess mathematical arguments for beauty just as they can pieces of art or music. The beauty they discerned about the math was not one-dimensional either: Using nine criteria for beauty — such as elegance, intricacy, universality, etc. — 300 individuals had better-than-chance agreement about the specific ways that four different proofs were beautiful.
This inquiry into the aesthetics of mathematics began when study co-author and Yale assistant professor of mathematics Stefan Steinerberger likened a proof he was teaching to a “really good Schubert sonata.”
“As it turns out, the Yale students who do math also do a statistically impressive amount of music,” said Steinerberger. “Three or four students came up to me afterwards and asked, ‘What did you mean by this?’ And I realized I had no idea what I meant, but it just sounded sort of right. So, I emailed the psych department.”
Find out what happened next over at Yale News.
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